21 May 2006

Wonder, challenge and a head-shaking sense of absurdity; that’s what has kept racing in general and the Derby in particular going these past 200 years. That’s what drew us to watch Visindar at Saint-Cloud on Monday.

The day did well on the wonder stakes. Saint-Cloud is one of the finest of Parisian suburbs, set high on the slope which climbs away from the Seine on the south-west of the Bois de Boulogne. It is like having a race track on Highgate Hill although you hope that a few more would turn up than did on Monday. They have had a panoramic restaurant here for 20 years. They poured champagne for us. And they had Visindar.

Not since Empery won under Lester Piggott in 1976 has a French-trained colt taken the Derby at Epsom. But now at last they appeared to have a nailed-on contender, an unbeaten chestnut who had won both his races with ease and whose normally reticent trainer Andre Fabre had let slip enough praise to send usually sensible people into fevered calls to their bookies. Fabre has topped the French list since 1986, victory with Hurricane Run in last year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe was his sixth in Europe’s greatest race in the last 20 years. Andre Fabre is a wonder too.

Yet, and this is where the challenge comes in, Andre has never won the Derby. To be fair he has had few fancied contenders. The subsequent St Leger winner Toulon ran sixth in 1991 and four years later Fabre’s 2,000 Guineas hero Pennekamp suffered a career-ending injury around the demanding Epsom course. But the Chantilly grapevine and Visindar’s 11-second final furlong at Longchamp in April had seen him as short as 2-1 Derby favourite even before he ran at Saint-Cloud on Monday. History and punters’ money produce a force it’s hard to argue with.

Which brings us to the absurdity. To even query Visindar’s comparison to Pegasus is already deemed little short of heretical among our partying hacks. Visindar may have a high reputation but he is a three-year-old colt who up until Monday had had just two, yes just two races in his life and both of them against nonentities. Paris last week was festooned with pictures of Ronaldhino and Thierry Henry in preparation for Wednesday’s Champions League final. Each of them will have played over 50 public matches this season, hundreds and hundreds in the course of their glittering careers. That’s true stardom. Visindar is merely the hope that public performance could confirm private promise.

So it was in a slightly cynical “let’s check the king’s new clothes” mood that I lined the paddock at Saint-Cloud. Visindar duly appeared led by two stablemates, (three of the six runners were Fabre-trained). He is a tall, lean, rangy son of Sinndar, who won the Derby six years ago, and the first thing you notice is his big and honest looking head. The second thing is a line of half a dozen of what look like heat spots across his neck. Not a calamitous thing but you don’t like spots on Derby candidates.

You couldn’t fault his demeanour and indeed the easy flow of his canter to the start was reminiscent of Nashwan, one of only two other chestnut Epsom heroes in the last 20 years. But this is all like judging Ronaldhino in the warm-up because of the brevity of the real thing. Out on the track we didn’t have 90 minutes of a football final, just the 2 min 3.10 sec in which Visindar ran the Saint-Cloud mile and a quarter. What we got was good, but it was still only a step of the way.

On the plus side Visindar seemed to settle easily in fourth place behind his pacemaker and when Christophe Soumillon urged him forward in the straight there was a very determined set of the head and neck as he gathered momentum to get four lengths clear at the line. On Monday you could not ask for much more. But at Epsom we will have to.Most of all because of the completely different rhythm and contours that Visindar will encounter.

Saint-Cloud is completely flat and the competition was so un-intense that Visindar was able to coast around as if he was having a public gallop. Epsom’s switchback horseshoe of a track makes demands like no other. Visindar may well have the class to ease his way through as Motivator did last year, but there looks like being at least three of the Aidan O’Brien team out to make it difficult. He has a nice flowing action but he is tall; if he was to be unlucky at the start or lose position up the early climb, he would suddenly find life very different. Twenty years ago Dancing Brave was a far, far more proven star than Visindar but look what Epsom did to him.

On Monday Visindar beat a close-packed group of three (one of whom has never won a race) by four lengths. On Thursday O’Brien’s Septimus won the Dante at York (admittedly on much softer ground) by eight. Third to Visindar was a colt called Hello Sunday, whose trainer Criquette Head-Maarek brought some perspective to proceedings. “Of course he did it well,” she said of the winner, “yet I thought he had lost weight and did not look as brilliant as last time. Epsom is a difficult place.”

A cautionary note but come Derby time, race fans like to throw caution to the wind. Every year they search for a new “Horse of The Century.” That’s the wonder, the challenge and, as ever, the absurdity of it all.

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